Day 2: Exploring the Hamakua Coast

As I look through the photographs of our second day in Hawaii, I am reminded, again, of the incredible ecological variation and diversity of one of the most remote archipelagos on Earth. The Big Island alone boasts 8 of the world’s 13 climate zones. It’s hard to believe you can go from visiting waterfalls in lush, tropical jungles, to sandy beaches and shallow, sand-bottomed ocean pools, to the summit of a volcano 14,000 feet above sea level all in the same day. Of all the places I’ve ever been, Hawaii is by far the most exhilarating.

We started our first full day off on the earlier side — for once a positive benefit of jet lag with Hawaii being three hours behind California. We awakened to the sounds of birds singing various cheerful songs and watched the sunrise lay a warm blanket of golden light over the luxuriant jungle greens surrounding the Hamakua House, our accommodation in Pepeekeo, a small town north of Hilo.

The day’s adventure started as soon as we left the house–in order to get to and from the Hamakua House, you have to drive down a rocky, dirt road and then through a jungle before reaching the nearest town of Honomu. We stopped for breakfast each morning at Mr. Ed’s Bakery in this small, wild-west-feeling town, which was included with our booking. This drive was actually one of the highlights of the stay for Miri and me. We couldn’t help but feel like we were on the Jungle Cruise or the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland when driving down the jungle road, often stopping the car to look up at the vines hanging down from the trees, turning off the radio to tune in to the wonderfully harmonious symphony of the jungle.

IMG_8957 IMG_8961 IMG_8964 IMG_8973 IMG_8970 IMG_8982 IMG_8989 IMG_9005 IMG_9011 IMG_9023 IMG_9030 IMG_9032 IMG_9033 IMG_9035 IMG_9047 IMG_9052 IMG_9058 IMG_9059 IMG_9062 IMG_9074

After eating breakfast, we made the 10-minute drive from Honomu to Akaka Falls State Park, where a short, paved trail loop leads you through a beautiful rainforest rich with wild orchids, bamboo groves, ferns, and other exotic plants. On the path, you pass by 100-foot Kahuna Falls before reaching Akaka Falls, the most visited waterfall on the Big Island where you can watch 442-feet of stunningly beautiful water cascade down into a moss-covered gorge.

IMG_9077 IMG_9091 IMG_9105 IMG_9106 IMG_9112 IMG_9117 IMG_9121 IMG_9124 IMG_9128 IMG_9133 IMG_9137 IMG_9146 IMG_9150 IMG_9167 IMG_9171 IMG_9190 IMG_9197 IMG_9213

Our next stop was the Four Mile Scenic Drive, also known as the Old Mamalahoa Highway, just off of Highway 19 in Pepeekeo. Much like the road leading to our accommodation, this beautiful drive takes you through the jungle and then along the coast, where you can stop to take pictures of the postcard-like view over Onomea Bay. The drive passes by the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden in Papaikou, a nonprofit nature sanctuary which is home to more than 2,000 species of plants, including countless, colorful genera of orchids, palm trees, and more. This “museum of living plants” is a must-see for photographers and nature lovers.

IMG_9478 IMG_9476 IMG_9466 IMG_9461 IMG_9457 IMG_9454 IMG_9238 IMG_9255 IMG_9247 IMG_9241 IMG_9240

Do you spot anything unusual on this leaf? 🙂

IMG_9273 IMG_9277 IMG_9259 IMG_9260 IMG_9285 IMG_9287 IMG_9290

Miri becoming “one” with nature.

IMG_9293 IMG_9301 IMG_9304 IMG_9305 IMG_9310 IMG_9312 IMG_9317 IMG_9318 IMG_9319 IMG_9329 IMG_9338 IMG_9339 IMG_9348 IMG_9352 IMG_9358 IMG_9360 IMG_9361 IMG_9373 IMG_9383 IMG_9395 IMG_9433 IMG_9437 IMG_9439 IMG_9446

Before grabbing a Hawaiian fast food lunch at Liko Lehua Cafe in Hilo, we visited Rainbow (Waiānuenue) Falls, tallying our third waterfall of the day. Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day to capture the rainbow that can be seen in the mist thrown up by the waterfall on sunny mornings. Hina, an ancient Hawaiian goddess, is said to live in the lava cave behind the waterfall.

IMG_9497IMG_9511 IMG_9513 IMG_9516

Not knowing where to go next, we consulted our Lonely Planet book and decided to check out Onekahakaha Beach Park just south of downtown Hilo. This beach park, in particular, is popular among families because the sand-bottomed cove is protected from ocean swells by a large boulder break. Watching powerful waves crash into the rocks while swimming in still, shallow waters was riveting. I felt like I was finally realizing my childhood dream of becoming a mermaid. However, the best part about this beach park was that we got to swim alongside sea turtles!!! I could hardly contain my excitement when I noticed these beautiful sea creatures peacefully grazing the ocean floor, coming up to the surface every so often for air. There is something so majestic about the honu, one of the few species on earth that has been swimming in the ocean alongside DINOSAURS for 150 million years. According to ancient Hawaiian legend, the green sea turtles were the first to guide the Polynesians to the Hawaiian islands, earning the respected status and symbol of the navigator that is always able to find its way home. In real life, honu swim hundreds of miles to lay their eggs on the very beach where they were born. I can hardly find my way home using GPS.

IMG_9527 IMG_9531 IMG_9533 IMG_9535 IMG_9548 IMG_9562 IMG_9570 IMG_9576 IMG_9577 IMG_9581 IMG_9583 IMG_9588 IMG_9591 IMG_9594 IMG_9595 IMG_9612 IMG_9623 IMG_9627

After drying off, we agreed a mini road trip was in order and set off for Maunakea, a dormant volcano almost 14,000 feet above sea level, to watch the sunset. In true ignorant-tourist fashion, we were completely oblivious of how high up the summit is and realized upon reaching the Maunakea Visitor Information Station that our 2WD rental car hadn’t the slightest chance at making it to the top without risking serious damage to the car. After driving all the way here to see the sunset, we were determined to find a way up. We came across a friendly-looking couple and asked if we could pay them to take us to the top. They agreed without hesitation or wariness at giving two complete strangers a lift in the backseat of their rental Jeep. It’s moments like this that I think “God Bless, Americans” for being so dang nice. I can’t imagine mustering up the courage in Austria to ask the same thing in German. It ended up being more fun tagging along with Sharon and Todd than if we had gone alone. They were visiting from Portland and were staying on the Big Island for the same 9 days we were to celebrate Todd’s birthday, just as Miri and I came here to celebrate his (well, that and our second honeymoon). My only regret is that I forgot to take their picture!

IMG_9635

“If no can…no can.” My new favorite catchphrase.

IMG_9646

Driving on Saddle Road, en route to Maunakea.

IMG_9649 IMG_9663 IMG_9669 IMG_9671 IMG_9685

Looking down on the Maunakea Vistitor Information Station from a hill across the way.

IMG_9688 IMG_9691 IMG_9693

Before Sharon and Todd kindly gave us a ride, Miri and I went on a short hike directly across from the visitor center, fortuitously allowing our bodies to adjust to the altitude. At the visitor center, you’re already 9,200 ft above sea level. But, as I mentioned earlier, we didn’t actually realize how high up we were until later, so I just attributed my wheezing and panting to being terribly out of shape. We were the only ones out here and I wanted to sit and meditate for a few minutes to take it all in. I can’t describe the incredible, elevating peace I felt here. In those minutes of silence, I felt I understood why this land is sacred to Hawaiians. I could’ve sat there all day, listening to nothing but the sound of the wind blowing by. It’s in these places of silence and solitude, away from the busyness of life, that I feel I can best tune into the presence of God or a Higher Power: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10); “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” (David; Psalm 23:1-3).

IMG_9696 IMG_9709 IMG_9715 IMG_9720 IMG_9734 IMG_9735 IMG_9746

Making our way up above the clouds to the top of the summit.

IMG_9751 IMG_9755

One thing I forgot to mention — it was FREEZING (30°F) up here! By the time I finished taking pictures of the sunset over the fake cloud horizon, my hands, feet, and legs were completely numb. When there’s snow, people actually come up here to snowboard. Can you think of anyplace else in the world where you can go from surfing to snowboarding in less than 2 hours? Amazing.

IMG_9765 IMG_9766 IMG_9779 IMG_9802 IMG_9805 IMG_9811 IMG_9820 IMG_9835

Practically starving by the time we made the trip down the summit and back to civilization, we stopped for dinner at Pineapples, a charming open air restaurant with live music in downtown Hilo, before calling it a night. Miri and I both ordered the Teriyaki Flank Steak, a mouth-watering marinated steak served with grilled pineapple, vegetable stir-fry, a choice of Jasmine rice or garlic potato mash, drizzled with Teriyaki beurre blanc (don’t ask me what that is), and, finally, topped with crispy fried onions and pineapple salsa. It was, for me, one of the more memorable meals of the trip.

IMG_9857 IMG_9859 IMG_9860

Continue Reading

Day 1: Welcome to the Big Island

IMG_8753

IMG_8785 IMG_8787 IMG_8807 IMG_8802 IMG_8791 IMG_8801 IMG_8797 IMG_0483 IMG_0481 IMG_8849 IMG_8864 IMG_8857 IMG_8878 IMG_8889 IMG_8891-001 IMG_8914

I’m going to begin this post by stating the obvious: Hawaii is paradise. My first time visiting the Hawaiian Islands was with my dad back in 2006. The two of us traveled to Maui, where I spent most of my time lying on the beach desperately trying to get tan so that I could go back home and, for once, not be the whitest of my friends.

Ten years later, Miri and I decided the Big Island would be the perfect place to spend our second honeymoon (I’ll explain that later). The inspiration for our trip actually came from the Pixar short “Lava” (2014) which was released alongside the feature film “Inside Out” in June 2015. This was not the first time Miri and I chose a vacation destination after seeing a movie–our trip to Bruges (and subsequent engagement) in November 2014 was inspired by the 2008 film aptly titled “In Bruges.” Anyway, for those of you who have seen the Pixar short, you know it is about about two lonely volcanoes searching for someone to “lava.” I was unsuccessful in trying not to cry during those five minutes. The song, reminiscent of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Over the Rainbow,” was just too damn sweet. After all, at the end of the day, aren’t we all searching for someone to hear our song?

We touched down at Kona International Airport on February 9th at around noon. The “aloha spirit” hit me like a wave as soon as I got off the plane. I felt my worries lift from my shoulders and I was in such a good mood it was almost scary. It’s hard to stay stressed out in a place where you are greeted by a beautiful statue of hula dancers in an airport terminal that is OUTSIDE because the weather is just that good.

After picking up our rental car, we stopped in Waikoloa Village (about 25 miles north of the airport) to have lunch. I was starting to get “hangry” so we chose Tropics Ale House because it had relatively good Yelp reviews and it was the closest thing nearby. As soon as we sat down, Miri started getting texts from his brother, Eddie, informing us that the Island of Hawaii just declared a state of emergency due to more than 250 reported cases of Dengue Fever, a mosquito-borne disease that causes painful and debilitating symptoms, including fever, headaches, nausea and vomiting, among other things.

Miri and I locked eyes, both of us realizing in dread that our honeymoon and so-called trip to paradise might be over before it had even started. To be fair to Hawaii, however, it’s important to note that mosquitoes were brought to the Hawaiian Islands by Europeans in 1826. Over the next 150 years, at least four more species were introduced. So, we can thank Europe for that…

I tried to stay positive after hearing the potentially-trip-stopping news and focused on the delicious fish tacos I had ordered, which were served with seared Hawaiian fish, fresh pineapple salsa, chopped cabbage, cilantro and chipotle aioli. Miri ordered a Kalua pork sandwich, but, judging from the number of times he asked for a bite of one of my tacos, it’s safe to assume I ordered the better of the two dishes.

Our worries were assuaged by the map my mom sent us showing that the high risk areas for Dengue Fever were mostly on the west coast of the island. We were on our way to Pepeekeo, a small area north of Hilo on the east coast of the island, with fewer than 2,000 residents and no reported cases of the fever. We decided to spend four nights in this remote area after coming across the Hamakua Guest House on Booking.com.

Miri and I are not resort people. When we travel, we try as much as we can to get a “real” feel of the place we’re staying and an authentic glimpse into the culture. We try to live like the locals, which means avoiding highly-popular and, in my opinion, overpriced package deals at big resorts like the plague. When we came across this very reasonably-priced, off-the-grid accommodation with solar panel electricity and a water tank, we knew it was the one.

However, getting there was a little tricky and after bouncing down a rocky, dirt road for about ten minutes before reaching the house, we started to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into. The house is surrounded by jungle and is, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. The nearest restaurants are about a 20-minute-drive away in Hilo.

Nonetheless, as soon as we arrived we were giddy with excitement to be staying at such a cool, unique kind of hostel/B&B. We stayed upstairs in the room with the King-sized bed and ocean-view. We patted ourselves on the backs for not being the “typical tourist couple” that stays at soulless, corporate resorts, surrounded by mostly older white people with too much money to spend and boisterous American families with cute-but-spoiled children.

Our smugness was a little premature as we realized our bedroom only had three solid walls. The fourth wall was comprised of slatted folding doors, which opened to reveal a bird’s-eye view of the kitchen. The setup provided excellent ventilation since the house doesn’t have A/C, but was not particularly great for privacy, especially when one envisioned a sexy, secluded stay. Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to come back here (I just wouldn’t forget to bring earplugs next time!).

Continue Reading